AWIS Supports Senate Push to Honor African American Mathematical Pioneers

July 16, 2019


Congressional Gold Medal Awardees

Gender equity champions cheered as U.S. Senators Chris Coons (D-Del.), Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), Kamala Harris (D-Calif.), and 44 other Senators introduced and helped pass the Hidden Figures Congressional Gold Medal Act in the Senate. The bill is currently working its way through the U.S. House of Representatives.

AWIS endorsed the bill honoring four African American female mathematicians that significantly contributed to the United States’ victory in the Space Race. Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan, Mary Jackson, and Dr. Christine Darden would receive the highest award the United States can bestow to a civilian: the Congressional Gold Medal.

The lives and careers of Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan, Mary Jackson, and Christine Darden were featured in the book Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race, by Margot Lee Shetterly. That book was adapted into the 2016 film Hidden Figures.

The credit and recognition to these four brave and courageous STEM professionals who paved the way for women, especially women of color, is long overdue, and AWIS applauds this bipartisan effort to acknowledge these Hidden Figures. AWIS research shows a strong correlation between women with role models and women with leadership goals to help drive excellence in STEM by achieving equity and full participation of women in all disciplines and across all employment sectors. 

Originally published in the AWIS Magazine.

Katherine Johnson

Katherine Johnson calculated trajectories for multiple NASA space missions including the first human spaceflight by an American, Alan Shepard’s Freedom 7 mission. She also calculated trajectories for John Glenn’s Friendship 7 mission to orbit the earth. During her time at NASA, she became the first woman recognized as an author of a report from the Flight Research Division.


Dorothy Vaughan

Dorothy Vaughan led the West Area Computing unit for nine years, as the first African American supervisor at National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA), which later became NASA. She later became an expert programmer in FORTRAN as a part of NASA’s Analysis and Computation Division.

Dr. Christine Darden

Dr. Christine Darden became an engineer at NASA 16 years after Mary Jackson. She worked to revolutionize aeronautic design, wrote over 50 articles on aeronautics design, and became the first African-American person of any gender to be promoted into the Senior Executive Service at Langley.


Mary Jackson

Mary Jackson petitioned the City of Hampton to allow her to take graduate-level courses in math and physics at night at the all-white Hampton High School to become an engineer at NASA. She was the first female African-American engineer at the agency. Later in her career, she worked to improve the prospects of NASA’s female mathematicians, engineers, and scientists as Langley’s Federal Women’s Program Manager.